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01 July 2010

A sporting chance

A sporting chance

Britain is heading into an unprecedented period as the centre of world sports, as London hosts the 2012 Olympics, Glasgow stages the 2014 Commonwealth Games and the World Cups for rugby in 2015 and cricket in 2019 both come to England. David Oakley looks at the challenges this presents for the Church...

Major sporting events can be a source of contention, with political debate about the economic and social benefits on one hand and family arguments over the television remote control on the other. And for churches, there's often a debate about the value of engagement with sporting festivals, especially with the extensive media coverage and sporting obsession in our country. But all of these issues are likely to intensify as the UK enters what's being called a "golden decade of sport", hosting several of the major sporting events over the next 10 years.

Over the past two decades, many churches have been exploring a variety of outreach centred around major sports events. These festivals can help churches address social issues, evangelise fans, educate children, build bridges to the marginalised and reach out to young people in their communities.

Large-scale outreach

"Soccer has become the new religion...
Just like when someone insults Islam or Christianity, they go all out like it is life and death."

Hosni Mubarak

This summer's FIFA World Cup in South Africa is seeing outreach take place on a massive scale. Within the host nation, churches and mission organisations are tapping into a wide range of possibilities. For example, the Alliance member Ambassadors in Sport has been helping to restore vulnerable broken lives through the Gospel and football while building a legacy beyond the event. To do this, they have trained hundreds of Christian coaches to reach out to soccer-mad - and often desperately poor - young people with the Gospel while addressing issues such as HIV/Aids and human trafficking.

As the World Cup builds to the final on 11 July, Christian organisations will work with hundreds of South African churches and individuals to make the most of opportunities to share Christ both within communities and with visiting fans from around the world. This includes local churches running sporting events and training camps. And Christian players will have the chance to share their faith at concerts, meetings and on radio stations running special sporting programmes produced by the Alliance member 2K Plus International Sports Media. Such top footballers as Lucio (Brazil), Marcos Senna (Spain) and Kaká (Brazil) talk about their football and faith in 2K Plus' series of 12 one-minute radio spots called 2010 Football Shorts.

And it's not just happening in South Africa. Here in the UK, churches are making the most of World Cup fever by holding football tournaments, family fun days, schools programmes and sports quizzes, as well as distributing literature and showing World Cup matches on big screens to reach out to their communities.

Some churches take the big-screen experience even further by having barbecues or asking local Christians to act as football pundits and share their testimonies. Some have even been turning their buildings into mock-up football stadiums where local children and families are invited to join a match.

Social concern

Increased Christian engagement at major sporting events also brings greater awareness of social issues. For example, Christians are expressing concerns for local subsistence businesses in South Africa who potentially could lose their trading spots to multinational sponsors during the World Cup. Additionally, the threat of human trafficking to support the sex trade is a real fear in many match-hosting cities, and churches have been vocal on this issue.

In two years time, all these issues will be felt in London and the UK during the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. And the opportunities to share the Gospel will be the same as well.

Good preparation work is already underway to help churches embrace Olympic ministry possibilities under the banner More Than Gold. Past experiences of Christian engagement at major sporting events have been drawn upon to provide a balance of outreach and social justice engagement around the 2012 Games.

In addition, More Than Gold regional envisioning and training events will be held this autumn to help churches to establish sustainable outreach initiatives around major sporting competitions. And lessons learned in 2012 will be transferred to other championship tournaments, including a possible England-hosted FIFA World Cup in 2018.

On your marks...

"Sport has the power to change the world, the power to inspire, the power to unite people in a way that little else can. It speaks to people in a language they understand."

Nelson Mandela

And there's plenty of work to do. Many UK-based sports ministries offer training and support for churches that want to reach out to children and young people through holiday activities with sporting themes such as soccer holiday clubs or church-based community games programmes. Christians can also show God's love by hosting overseas athlete families in their homes and offering pastoral support through chaplaincy programmes. Supporting all this activity is a prayer movement that's accompanied by a variety of media tools.

In other words, there is a wide programme of mission opportunities for churches before, during and after each major global sporting event. But it's important to remember two lessons that emerged from Canadian church leaders as they reflected on outreach at this year's Vancouver Winter Olympics. First, church leaders were shocked by the massive national engagement of the Canadian population far beyond the Games city. And because they were not prepared for such widespread interest, church leaders across the country wished they had done more preparation in order to reach out during the Games.

The Bible records how major celebration events like Passover and Purim were very much part of the Judeo-Christian faith. Jesus used the events to reveal more of who He was to the gathered crowds (see John 7). And the Apostle Paul may well have maximised his tent-making evangelistic opportunities during his extended stay at Corinth during the time of the Isthmian Games (1 Corinthians 9.24-27).

As the World Cup concludes and the Olympics and Commonwealth Games approach, my hope is that guidelines drawn from the use of major events in the Bible and the lessons learned from previous global sporting festivals will help UK church leaders respond positively to the unprecedented opportunity offered by our own "golden decade of sport".

Take it further...

David Oakley is the CEO of Ambassadors in Sport and co-ordinator of the Alliance's Forum for Change sport cluster group.

For more articles and stories on the Olympics please go to our special Olympics webpage

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